When a Pordhesia butterfly hatches from its egg, it is in a world of darkness. The female butterfly lays her eggs in the deepest, darkest cracks of trees to protect them, and because the young caterpillar cannot digest the tough older leaves it is surrounded by, something within it drives it to crawl to the ends of the branches, towards the light, where the young and tender leaves are that are perfect for a brand new baby caterpillar.

Nature drives it forward, unconsciously, as it is sensitive to the light, and once its digestive tract is more mature, this sensitivity disappears, because it is no longer needed.

Children are like caterpillars

Yes, my children like to crawl like caterpillars, but this is not what I mean by that. One of my huge realisations with my Montessori training is how amazing nature is, and how, if we can partner with it in our children’s learning, the results are pretty flipping amazing!

Not sure what I mean?

Dr Montessori studied the way children learn over decades of being immersed with them. They came from all kinds of backgrounds, from the very rich, to the children in asylums who were in a terrible state. She spent time with children in her native Italy, the Netherlands, the US and UK and also spent time in India, and she noticed that children everywhere went through the exact same development phases because it is nature that drives this learning in the early years (until around age 6).

What she discovered is that children under 6 don’t just absorb everything without effort (I will write a post on this), she also discovered that while the child is constructing his or herself, nature compels them to move forward and they too have sensitive periods, just like the caterpillar does, and it closes off when nature dictates, not if the child has finished that area of learning. Maria Montessori believed that children pass through phases in which at certain stags throughout their development they have a predisposition or sensitivity to learning a specific skill.

OK, so let me demonstrate. How is it that a child, in their first 6 years of life can effortlessly learn to talk, often with quite a bit of sophistication, not only their mother tongue, but also can learn other languages too, so much easier than we can as adults? How is it that a child can learn all the names of dinosaurs, when they can be really long, and seemingly tricky?

It is because of the sensitive period to language that a child goes through from birth. At 4 months, they will watch your mouth intently, and a bit later will start making noises that become recognisable. And between the ages of 3 and 6, writing, reading and other language learning can be perfected. After 6, it becomes harder for a child to learn language to the extent that they can before hand.

Interestingly, in other cultures, learning may not even start until age 6, and obviously a child can still learn to read or write after this age, it is just that they do not have nature on their side making it more something they are drawn to do. They have to consciously make an effort to learn it, rather than naturally picking things up.

Some of these sensitive periods may become obvious to you – a period where movement is huge – climbing everything, and walking itself!… language – learning and trying out new sounds, words, and being compelled to learn to read…  order – oh my goodness, is Bear in this right now and the tantrums when something is not right are tremendous… refinement of the senses – putting things in mouths, smelling things, tasting them… loving small objects – woodlice are our current favourite small object, and we have a resident woodlouse called George they visit every day!

When you start to understand these natural driving forces in our children’s development, you can maybe begin to understand why in a Montessori classroom you will find activities that the children can repeat over and over (watch carefully and you will notice that many include the movements needed for writing and holding a pen), to develop small and large motor skills (my kids love scrubbing the tiles or sweeping the floor!), that contain items that are tiny, such as the beads or the very smallest cube on the pink tower, and why one quarter of the whole curriculum for under 6s is devoted to sensorial development! What I love is some of the language materials where we are constantly introducing new words to the children in a fun way that they feel is like a game!

While we have all these materials in our classroom at home, we enjoy getting out in nature too, where we can also partner with nature by going on nature walks (movement), finding minibeasts and seeds (small objects), use our senses to see (and sketch, which is movement) the colours and things we see on our nature walks, we learn the names of trees, leaf shapes, vertebrate and invertebrate species. We learn the skills of observation and the beauty and order that exists in nature, and we even from time to time, get to taste some of the things we find too!